WAVES crash, gulls cry, wind whispers and sun warms skin. At the same time, worries seem to fade, the mind clears, the heart slows and the lungs breathe deep of the clean, salty air. There’s something, it seems, inherently therapeutic about the beach.
Increasingly, evidence backs up that intuition. Research shows that simply being in nature is good for the mind and body -- and the beach may be particularly healthful. Not only have studies found that most people are drawn to water, but simply looking at water appears to help alleviate anxiety and calm agitated nerves.
The appeal may be the sea’s color, its sounds, possibly even its evolutionary associations, embedded in the human genome. Whatever the reason, “it’s deep in the human psyche to want to be around water,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, adjunct professor of environmental health sciences and city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.
The sun also has myriad beneficial effects, as do the beach’s other sensory experiences, most all of them universally soothing. And the visual and auditory quiet gives the mind time to settle, forget those everyday cares.
“If you ask somebody to relax, to imagine someplace that they feel is safe, self-soothing and healing,” said Cathy Malchiodi, a Louisville, Ky., art therapist and spokeswoman for the American Art Therapy Assn., “they often will [imagine] the beach.”
Our affinity with the shore is long-held. The ancients prescribed sunbathing to reverse melancholy, heal wounds, treat syphilis and lower fevers. The Romans thought soaking up sun strengthened muscles (they advocated it for their gladiators) and that sea voyages were good for tuberculosis.
Today, few Americans head to the beach to cure their bodily ills. But beaches consistently top the list in surveys of favorite get-away destinations. And Americans are increasingly (and perhaps unwittingly) bringing the beach’s natural remedies home: bulbs and light machines that simulate natural sunlight; salt scrubs, seaweed wraps and bathing mud for the skin; relaxation CDs and machines that play the sounds of gently breaking waves.
But there’s nothing quite like the real thing, a day with the vastness of sky above and the feel of sand below, cool air mixed with sunlight. The beach, it seems, is perfectly engineered to soothe the human body and soul.
A love of nature
LANDSCAPE designers and environmental psychologists studying the human response to outdoor environments have made a fairly consistent finding in the last few decades: On average, people prefer landscapes with water to those without.
Since the 1960s, studies have shown that pictures of water elicit positive emotions in viewers -- as long as the water isn’t obviously polluted or roiling with storm. Asked to assess the tranquillity of different landscape pictures, college students in one study consistently rated those containing large, calm bodies of water highest.
Looking at water is not just superficially pleasing; it may also be therapeutic. In 1990, Texas A&M; University architecture and landscape architecture professor Roger Ulrich and colleagues studied 166 open-heart surgery patients in a Swedish hospital, randomly assigning them to look at a picture of open water, one of a forest, abstract art or a blank wall. Those who looked at the open water had the least anxiety after their operations.
Some evolutionary psychologists speculate that humans might be drawn to bodies of water -- in images and in reality -- because for millions of years, water meant two necessities of survival: food and drink. Water, of course, is home to fish and other edibles; it also attracts wild game that can be hunted. Moving water is an indication of water that’s safe to drink (stagnant water being a happy home for pathogens).
The human affinity for water extends to other landscape features too -- as long as they’re natural. Since the 1980s, scientists have shown that just looking at a natural landscape -- that is, one populated by vegetation and animal life, not skyscrapers and automobiles -- can improve mood, mitigate stress, boost mental function and even reduce pain and illness.
Studies conducted by Ulrich and others in the 1980s showed that college students facing a final exam had fewer stress symptoms after viewing nature scenes, compared with those who viewed city scenes. A study in Sweden took things a step further, plotting students’ brain waves as they viewed the pictures. Those who looked at nature scenes were, sure enough, more relaxed than those who didn’t.
Ulrich went on to show that a nature view from a hospital window sped recovery time and reduced pain complaints in patients recovering from gall bladder surgery and that prison inmates with bucolic views had fewer headaches, upset stomachs and overall health complaints than those whose windows overlooked prison walls.
Getting out into the great outdoors is likely even better than just looking at it. Recent studies have shown that spending time outside lessened fatigue in women recovering from breast cancer and reduced aggressive outbursts in patients with Alzheimer’s. More recently, researchers at the University of Illinois found that playing outdoors reduced ADHD symptoms in children, particularly if they played in areas that were lush and green.
The beach isn’t a particularly verdant landscape, of course, but it just might be the case that watching the waves or sea grass bending in the breeze can have similarly stress-reducing, mood-enhancing effects.
“Modern life today is just so full of input and so stimulating that getting out in nature ... gives an opportunity to relax and to refresh and to recover from stress,” said Paula Diane Relf, retired professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
But that’s just one theory that explains why simply being out in the elements seems to do a body good, Relf says. It’s more likely, she said, that humans are genetically programmed to have a love of nature, or biophilia, to use the phrase coined by biologist and longtime Harvard professor E.O. Wilson.
Humans, Wilson wrote in “Biophilia” (his 1984 book on the subject), are innately drawn to nature not just for food and shelter but also for fodder for the mind and spirit. That pull is encoded in our genes, and only in communing with nature do humans achieve mental and physical health.
“Because we evolved in natural environments, we have a psychological and physiological response to them,” Relf says. “We need an outdoor, natural environment for our psyche and our spirit, not just our bodies, to be healthy.”
Sounds convincing, but not all researchers are sold. After all, the great outdoors isn’t for everyone, and even most tree-huggers can think of a few things in nature that would speed up their heart rate and send them running inside.
And specific outdoor environments, such as the beach, might not evoke the same psychological associations for all goers.
Dr. Kimford Meador, professor of neurology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, pointed out that people who grew up near or by the water, or who have often vacationed by the water, may have built up a set of positive experiences that help to make beaches in particular -- with all of their associated sights, sounds and smell -- such deeply warm, relaxing environments.
But negative associations are just as possible. For those who fought at Normandy in World War II or witnessed the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia and surrounding countries in 2004, beaches may not be that relaxing, Meador says.
And then there are those just don’t like the feel of sand in their bathing suits or the taste of it in their sandwiches, who would rather be cooled by air conditioning than an ocean breeze.
A day at the beach usually means a day in the sun, and the prevailing wisdom is that any sun is too much sun -- with exposure to UV rays having been solidly linked to premature aging and skin cancer. But sunshine is also a mood enhancer.
In 1980, Swedish researchers reported that the brain’s levels of serotonin -- one of the brain’s mood-elevating neurochemicals -- appeared to be lowest in winter. In 2002, Australian researchers confirmed the finding by taking blood samples from more than 100 healthy volunteers. Their results, published in the journal Lancet, showed that the brain’s production of serotonin rose with increasing exposure to sunlight.
Seasons in the sun
THE finding shed some light, so to speak, on seasonal variations in depression and suicide prevalence, both of which increase in dark winter months. A separate, emerging body of research is also poised to explain why moods improve in sunny seasons. Sunlight triggers the body to make vitamin D, and studies have shown that people who suffer from the most common type of seasonal depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), often benefit from exposure to UV light or supplemental vitamin D.
In a Australian study, taking vitamin D helped combat SAD symptoms in a small group of patients; another small study, conducted at a hospital in Maryland, also showed that vitamin D alleviated depression. Canadian researchers provided further evidence in a 2004 study that signs of depression diminished in patients given supplemental vitamin D (though a much larger English study, published in 2006, found no connection between taking extra vitamin D and improved mood).
The brain contains an enzyme that can produce the biologically active form of vitamin D; brain tissue also has lots of receptors for the vitamin. Some researchers speculate that vitamin D may be involved in regulating serotonin levels in the brain, but scientific proof remains elusive.
With high rates of vitamin D deficiency in the U.S. (between 20% and 60% of all teens and adults are deficient, depending on age, race and gender), some doctors and researchers are calling for more exposure to sunlight.
“You’d have to drink a lot of [fortified] orange juice and a lot of milk,” to get the daily recommended dose of 1,000 units of vitamin D, said Michael Holick, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston Medical Center.
Sun, on the other hand, provides a much more efficient way of getting adequate vitamin D. Exposed to the sun for half an hour in a bathing suit, a light-skinned person’s body will make 20 times the daily recommended dose of the vitamin. Ten to 15 minutes of sun on the face and arms a couple of times a week produces just enough of the vitamin, but any excess can be stored in the body for a couple of weeks. Sunscreen slows manufacturing substantially: An SPF of 15 reduces the body’s ability to make vitamin D by about 99%, Holick says.
Holick, in fact, is one of a small number of medical experts calling for a more lenient attitude toward sun exposure.
“We were born, we evolved, we’ve been bathed in sunlight all our lives,” says Holick, citing evidence that vitamin D supplementation can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes, multiple sclerosis and likely colorectal, prostate, ovarian, breast and other cancers.
Look, listen and inhale
A day at the beach is a sensory experience unlike a day at the mall, say, or a day at the office. Dr. Karen Koffler, medical director of the Canyon Ranch spa at Miami Beach, pointed out that the beach “engages all five senses, but not in an overwhelming way, in a really gentle way.”
To begin with, there’s the view. “Visually, you’ve got this undisturbed vista,” Koffler says. “It’s not the middle of Times Square, where your eyes are just overloaded with information, it’s this calm, beautiful, uncompromised view off into the distance. It’s soft on the eyes, and it gives you this sense of expansiveness.”
Said vista also has a specific color. When one conjures up images of the beach, they’re often dominated by two hues: blue and beige.
Studies by the Pantone institute, a Carlstadt, N.J.-based color think tank, have shown that blue -- the color of sky and sea, of course -- is a universal favorite, a hue that people worldwide find peaceful and tranquil, cooling and reassuring. Studies have also shown that people find muted colors, such as beiges, soothing and relaxing -- especially when they occur in large quantities, as with sand.
The shoreline’s blue and beige sit opposite each other on the color wheel, creating a complementary color scheme that’s harmonious to the eye, says Jill Morton, chief executive of Colorcom, a color consultancy based in Honolulu and New York. Morton points out that beaches (industrial meltdowns notwithstanding) are devoid of bright colors such as red, which since our cave-dwelling days has symbolized fire, blood and danger.
In the neural network of the human brain, the blue and beige of the beach get associated with a host of sensory experiences, from the smell of the salt air to the sound of the waves to the feel of a gentle ocean breeze. The brain, that is, ties the colors to the whole experience of being at the beach, in what color psychologists (psychologists who study the human response to colors) call an “associational response.”
“Blue is a favorite because it reminds people of time spent on beaches, on hikes, on the water, in the great outdoors on vacation,” Morton says. “The experiences associated with the color become imprinted on us.”
Some color psychologists take that idea a step further. They say the associational response to nature colors has been hard-wired into the human brain over the course of evolution, not just individual lifetimes.
That is, for millions of years, the human brain has associated blue with the reassuring constancy of the sky and the refreshment of water. Fast-forward to today, and the human response to blue is nearly instinctual, said Leatrice Eiseman, a color psychologist and executive director of the Pantone color institute.
“Humans are imbued with ancient memory,” Eiseman said. “Throughout the ages, our ancestors all felt the same way because they were conditioned by what they saw in the world around them, and it became instinctive. We don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s the color of the blue sky therefore it’s calming and serene.’ We just sort of know it, instinctually.”
The brain has an associational response to smells too. People typically head to the beach to relax and unwind. Ultimately, says Pamela Dalton, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, our minds link the smells of the beach with the sensation of getting away from it all.
But context matters. Some beach odors -- the smell of washed-up mollusks, low tide, decomposing seaweed -- aren’t all that pleasant on their own or when whiffed in high concentrations. “But in their place, in their context,” Dalton says, “these smells have a lot of potency, and a lot of beauty.”
Just as subtle combinations of scent stimulate the sense of smell, layers of nature sounds stimulate the ears.
Sandpipers, plovers and even seagulls squawk and squeak a combination of harmonic, melodious and inharmonic sounds. The steady rhythm of waves is actually a not-so-uniform symphony composed of the sounds of millions of air bubbles of all sizes bursting as water hits the shore.
“We evolved in an environment with sounds such as the sounds of birds, the sound of running water, the sound of wind, and so on,” said Diana Deutsch, professor of psychology at UC San Diego.
The sounds most people hear on a regular basis, on the other hand, the rumbles of cars, airplanes and construction equipment, the whirs of vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and washing machines, are unnatural and relatively new, on an evolutionary scale.
“These are all artificial sounds, and there’s no reason to assume that we would have evolved to appreciate them or even want to hear them,” Deutsch says. “In fact, there’s good reason to expect that we would find them annoying.”
Strengthens body, mind
SOME beaches may be crowded and noisy, but most are characterized by muted sounds and an uncomplicated vista stretching to a distant horizon -- stimuli that are widely regarded as relaxing.
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said a deserted beach can be an ideal locale for meditating. “People often prefer to meditate in places with little distraction,” says Davidson, who has studied effects of meditation on the brain. “There’s enough internal distraction that we all carry with us all the time that we don’t need to add to that.”
Studies of two popular types of meditation, transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation, have shown that meditating can improve mood, boost immunity, and may, in the long-run, be good for the cardiovascular system. In transcendental meditation, a word or phrase is repeated over and over to help focus and quiet the mind. Mindfulness meditators focus on breathing in order to heighten their awareness of the present.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said the beach can be an exceptionally good place to practice mindfulness meditation.
“The air on your skin, the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the water ... these are all incredibly rich sensory experiences that can wake you up to the full actuality of the body’s experience, which is what meditation is all about,” he says.
Swimming in the sea can be a meditative activity too, he adds. By its very nature, swimming requires focusing on breathing and involves a host of sensory experiences, from feeling the water slide across the body to watching the sun glint off the waves.
“When you emerge from swimming like that, it’s like you’re coming out of the water, but you’ve shed a lot of what you went in with,” Kabat-Zinn says.
Swimming is also a very good workout that’s recommended for just about any body type and ability. It’s easy on the joints and strengthens the back. In fact, it works more of the body’s musculature than any other singular exercise.
Running and walking in the water -- waist deep if you can stand it -- is also an excellent, beach-based, cardio workout, said Robert McMurray, professor of exercise and sports science and professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Water provides resistance to movement, more resistance than the air, so you’re getting a resistance workout in.”
If air alone provides enough resistance for you, there’s always a run or walk in the sand. Running on sand is a harder workout than running on dirt or the local track because sand gives way, forcing muscles to work harder to push the body forward.
Running and walking on sand have an added benefit too: When you walk in the sand, you get softer skin, said Dr. Min-Wei Christine Lee, a clinical faculty member in dermatologic surgery at UC San Francisco and director of the East Bay Laser &Skin; Care Center in Walnut Creek.
“If you’re playing around in the sand, you’re naturally going to get exfoliated,” Lee said.
So if you’re not up for a run, give the kids a pail and shovel and get in up to your neck.